Grad student tip: Learn R now!

If you arrived on this page, you could be looking for tips on how to prepare for grad school. You are in the right place! Whether you are about to enter a graduate program on whale science, environmental science, or any kind of biological/chemical science, I think you will enjoy this post. Here is one of the most valuable grad student tips if you want to pursue research at the academic level: Learn how to use R. NOW. You will thank us later.

Credit: Pixabay

What is R?

R is both a programming language and statistics software. It is free and used by most of the scientific community. If you start research at the graduate level, chances are you will need to run some statistical analysis on some data to create figures for a report or a publication. R is your friend (and sometimes your enemy). This amazing software can cover you through your whole data analysis and help you create beautiful figures. But to do so you need to know the R language and how the software works.

Basically, R is like a console. You enter written commands in R language and the software executes what you ask. RStudio is a free, open-source IDE (integrated development environment) for R. This means that R runs the analysis and RStudio is the “user-friendly interface” that lets you control R. The interface looks like this on RStudio. User friendly, right? Ha!

RStudio is an interface: you can edit a script which is a bunch of commands (top left) to run your R commands

What should you learn?

I personally believe everybody should learn about R in undergrad. The university where I did my undergraduate studies taught us R the second year. It was intense and brutal. But I entered my graduate programs with an advantage: I did not need to learn R from scratch.

I do not think you should be an expert in R before you start grad school. Do not put too much pressure on yourself. But I believe you should start learning the basics. Like how to run different commands, what they mean, how to load and transform your data, etc. Knowing the basics in linear modeling can be very helpful as well to save you precious time once you start working on your own data.

Here are some free resources to help you learn the basics of R. I found these free courses through my university and they are very helpful.

Introduction to R & How to load and manipulate data.

R has a whole bunch of functionalities grouped in packages. These packages are like toolboxes that help you run certain analyses. Some packages can help you create beautiful figures (like the “ggplot2” package). Other packages can help you run smooth modeling analyses (like the “lme4” package for example).

Becoming an expert in R

You cannot become an expert in R overnight. But you can become comfortable enough to run some new packages easily and learn new R commands quickly. And here is an insider secret: the R community is HUGE and whatever question you might have can be answered by the community on websites like this one.

Once you know the basics, you will be unstoppable!

Data analysis and making cool figures take a lot of time, and energy. It can be frustrating when things do not work, but hang in there and soon, you will be able to create beautiful results!

PS: this website is super helpful to create nice figures.

Happy coding everybody! Let us know if this post was helpful! You can check our other grad school related posts here.

Anaïs is the founder of Whale Scientists. She is a PhD student at McGill University working on killer whale ecology and pollution. You can read more about her here.

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